A Coincidental Conversation about Rollercoasters, Shirt Cardboards and Walt Disney with former Imagineer Jim Shull
today at 9:42 am
It’s not a coincidence that “Jim Shull” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll” almost rhyme.
At least not to me.
That’s because Shull, a former Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) executive creative director, designed the “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith” ride at Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, among many others. And like that ride, getting the chance to talk to him was a thrill.
The thing is, when I did, I quickly realized not only how passionate he is about his work, but that he doesn’t quite understand just how important he, and all the Imagineers, are to so many.
So, with that, below are 13 takeaways from our conversation (slightly edited for length and flow). And I’m guessing that, after you read them, you’ll want to watch our full conversation to learn more about the man and the magic he created − like the man whose vision he helped keep alive.
Takeaway #1: He designs with a child’s heart. “As a child in California,” Shull shared, “we’d make yearly trips to Disneyland. On my seventh birthday, instead of having a big party at home, my parents allowed me to take one friend to Disneyland. That’s, of course, when I began to learn the art of negotiation. And that’s also why, when I design, I do so with that 7-year-old child still within me.”
Takeaway #2: Disney brings us to tears – in a good way. I explained to Shull that I was surprised, and a little embarrassed, when I teared up from a sense of wonder while first riding the new Flight of Passage. After writing a column about the experience, I received many reader responses, from men and women alike, saying they felt the same way. When I shared this with Shull, he answered that he experienced a similar reaction, and in fact, made a point of telling the ride’s WDI creative lead, Joe Rhode, about the
effect the ride had on him.
Takeaway #3: The Imagineers start with story. At WDI, Shull and his team began new projects by completing the phrase, “Once upon a time ______.” Shull shared several examples: “We’d say, ‘Once upon a time, there was Mickey Mouse and he lived in a suburban house outside of Anaheim.’ Well, that became Mickey’s Toontown. Or ‘Once upon a time, Andy was playing with his toys in the backyard before he left them to go to lunch,’ and that became Toy Story Land. Or ‘Once upon a time, I wanted to go to a rock and roll concert and I was the biggest fan the band had so they got me a special VIP limo’ and that became ‘Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.”
Takeaway #4: Lights, cameras, design! Shull explained how WDI’s approach is to pair up Imagineers with projects they are passionate about, knowing that will bring the most to the project and ultimately the guests − and also why the term “casting” is used by Disney for its talent selection and assignment process: “It’s called ‘casting’ because WDI originated in the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California,” Shull explained. “In a movie studio, you develop stories; have a creative team flesh them out; have people put together your crew, set, and technology budget; and then build a team that will deliver your movie. Well, since WDI came from that background, that history, that DNA, casting is very much part of that.”
Takeaway #5: Disney guests are the true judges of a ride’s success. Shull gathered initial feedback on his rides during “soft openings,” where first cast members and then guests were invited, and then on the formal opening days for all guests. “I would also engage team members who weren’t technically in creative roles,” Shull said, “like those in estimating, scheduling, and finance, since they also brought a valid point of view.” In the project’s planning stages, Shull added, he would spend hours every day thinking about how the ride would appeal to people, including those from different cultures.
Takeaway #6: It’s a small world. Really small. Shull talked about the common themes he found with people around the globe, “In reality, people are people. For example, when I explained the Toy Story Hotel concept to Bob Iger [Walt Disney Company executive chairman, chairman of the board, and former CEO] and the rest of the Imagineering Team, I said I wanted to do something ‘child-like, but not childish.’ And I thought that Toy Story Hotel and Toy Story Land would appeal across cultures because everyone is, or has been, a child, and everyone is playing, or has played, with toys.”
Takeaway #7: Dream on… then make it real. Shull shared a personal
example of the thoughtful approach Imagineers bring to planning rides: “First, I thought, well, I’m a fan of music and rollercoasters, so I saw the potential of fusing them in one ride, since they’re both about kinetic action and energy. Next, I realized that, though I’m not a musician and would actually be embarrassed to try to play an instrument or sing, I am still very interested in music. I also believed that many others, including Disney guests, feel the same way. So, I wondered how I could eliminate the potential embarrassment our guests might feel of going into the world of music, a world that they wouldn’t normally enter, and help them feel safe – and that became ‘Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.’”
Takeaway #8: I don’t want to miss a thing… when looking at Studio C. Shull shared Aerosmith’s first reactions after experiencing the ride for the first time: “They were blown away. The guys just loved it and rode it over and over. From the beginning, in fact, they embraced the project. So much so that, when you go through the queue for that ride, and you see the ‘Studio C’ setup, there are a lot of props in there that Aerosmith gave us. They also sent their studio technicians to Orlando so I could work with them to set up that scene. The goal was to make it authentic and sincere, to the point where it feels as if the band could step into that studio and actually do a recording.”
Takeaway #9: Keep your glasses on or you might miss something. Shull shared two main design criteria he and his ride engineering team followed in creating “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith”: “I wear glasses. So, one of the criteria I had was that the coaster needed to be dynamic enough to be exciting but not so dynamic that I’d have to remove my glasses – like some other coasters make you do. Another criterion was that it had to be re-rideable, meaning that, after I rode it, I’d want to ride it again and again. A lot of rollercoasters want the record for most dynamic, most thrilling, or most aggressive. I just wanted it to be thrilling, but not terrifying.”
Takeaway #10: Many happy – and safe – returns. In talking about the intense pre-launch sequence of “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith,” Schull explained that, though that sequence is an example of the Imagineers intentionally creating a moment of anxiety for guests, overall they want guests to know that, at Disney, they’ll be safe. “I believe in ‘safe journeys and safe returns,’” Shull explained. “You’re invited to do something you want to do but maybe wouldn’t do in real life. Like with the ride ‘Soarin,’ if you don’t want to hang glide in real life and I told you, oh you can do it safely, well you might want to. It’s the promise that you’ll be protected and return safely, and that when you do return, you’ll learn something both about the narrative you just experienced and yourself.”
Takeaway #11: He finally found his canvas. Shirt cardboards play an important role in Shull’s early career. After asking him about this intriguing coincidence that I first heard about on a WDW Tales podcast, Shull shared the following: “As an only child who also stuttered, I was very introverted. We also lived on a hill and there were 39 steps to our front door, so we didn’t get a lot of visitors. Fortunately, my father was an advertising executive and wore starched white shirts that had cardboards in them. Why was that fortunate? Because, at age five or six, I started drawing on them, giving me a way to express myself. Then my father decided to build a swimming pool, so one day, a dump truck left a mountain of sand behind our house. Of course, sand is a perfect tool to design and build with, and because I loved Disney, I started doing that. Then, I convinced my father to give me a piece of his garage and I built a train set and learned about rock work. So, it’s not so much one straight line, it’s an accumulation of life experiences that, when there is an opportunity to use those experiences, I’d find myself in the right place.”
Takeaway #12: What happens after “happily ever after.” In Jim’s case, it keeps going. Since leaving Disney, Shull has brought his design expertise to other companies. “I started getting notes from people asking if I’d like to talk about a project,” Shull explains. “And, if it was a project I liked, I’d agree. I have also started using social media more. Now, of course, I didn’t start my life saying, this is where I see myself in 2021, but it’s an accumulation of life experiences and always saying yes to things that led me to where we are right now. Of course, it’s important to note the critical role WDI played in his life. “WDI is a world-class, one-of-a-kind organization,” Shull added. “There’s nothing, to my knowledge, that equals what they do. I was fortunate to be part of that for over 33 years.”
Takeaway #13: It all started with a ________. At the end of our conversation, I asked Shull to complete the famous Walt Disney quote (“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing ─ that it was all started by a mouse.”) about his own career. His answer: “It all started with a story. It doesn’t matter what the story is, how long or short it is, or where you live… or anything about you. Everything I have ever done starts with a story. Everyone has a story. I would encourage them, in whatever form they want, to find their story, and be brave enough to tell it and pursue it.
Follow Jim Shull on Twitter: @JimShull
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